RACES: Snowdon International Race

What a race!!!!

Helicopters, interviews, cheering spectators, internationals galore, and most of all hundreds of megatons of evil Welsh rock forging the way up a relentless 8km path to the top of Yr Wyddfa: Snowdon, the white giant of Wales, at 1085m altitude.

The Background
The Snowdon International Race, or Ras yr Wyddfa, as the local Welsh call it, has gone on for longer than I have lived, 31 long years.

Legendary mountain running legend, Englishmen Kenny Stuart, whose career was ended all too early by illness, holds the all-time record for the race at 01:02:29. He ascended in 39:57, only the second man to break the 40 minute threshold, being beaten by ten seconds at his win in 1985 by Irishman Robin Bryson.

Other winners of renown include Ireland's own John Lenihan, the Kerryman who was crowned World Champion in 1991, who won in 01:04:12 (a faster time than this year's winner as it should prove).

So this year, it was up to the current generation of internationals from Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, England, and, of course, Wales, to take in Yr Wyddfa, following a relentless tarmac ascent onto the tail of the Dragon of Snowdonia, and how we all felt like running on the backbone of such an ancient beast. And what a bite it had...

Race Statistics
Before delving back into myth and story, let the cold facts speak for themselves:

Length: 15.35km (7.16km ascent, 7.19km descent, 1km flat)
Elevation: 994m
Ascent Grade: 13.4% (max 32%)

That's some race. Not as rough as Carrauntoohil, not as steep as Lug or Croagh Patrick, but featuring a significantly longer climb than either of the aforementioned and contested by a field of the sport's very finest athletes.
Welcome to Llanbaris
The report of Wales that I had heard were much worse than reality as it proved. The Royal Victoria Hotel had been labelled "The Fawlty Towers" (while it wasn't the Waldorf Astoria, that was a very unfair assessments!), the city a dead-beat hole in the countryside (it was lively enough this weekend!), and our port of arrival, Holyhead, a kip with not a decent place to eat (I counted at least 7 restaurants in town, and the Bistro comes heavily recommended!).

There was quite a buzz around the city, people were eagerly inquiring about the race to most of the runners, and if the 2006 race DVD being played in the Hotel Bar didn't set the right mood, then the list of previous winners hanging on proud wooden display certainly did.

Most, if not all, runners retired early that Friday, so we could ponder our nervous anticipation through the night...

The Long Wait

Saturday started bright, weather looked promising with only light cloud cover and mild wind. Fear of this turning into a schorching summer day, where not altogether unwarranted either. A greater threat (to our sanity!) was the long wait. Race start was 14:00, and while I only met Bernard for breakfeast at 8am, the other runners soon joined us as 9am, leaving us with 5 hours of downtime to kill.

Motions of doing a practice run where quickly defeated, and instead we decided to take a walkabout in the locality, taking in first the splendid view of Snowdon (which does seem to have been heavily mined on one side; a fact that strangely only adds to the natural roughness of the mountain).

Llanberis is a nice little town, and it was not surprising that our big contingent of mountain runners quickly stumbled into the local outdoor store and started shopping away big and small. Not to be outdone, I purchased a map of Snowdon (1:25.000 to supplement my existing 1:50.000), a Salomon shoulder belt for water, and after much deliberation the Inov-8 Mudclaw 330 shoes (of which more will be told later!). (as a sidenote I was told to stay way clear of the Mudclaw 280, as this lighter model is apparently their most returned fell running shoe, with an average lifespan of only a few races!).

We went on to have a decent lunch, though I caused a bit of a stir first loudly discussing my groin pain during the Achill Island Half-marathon (it's a purely functional area folks!!!) and then ruining any chances of winning the "Mountain Man of the Year" award with my choice of strawberry shake as pre-race protein top-up.

Once the commotion had died down and old ladies comforted, we made our way directly to registration, located in a big civic hall, filled with small stores like a market fair, just next to the fields where the race start was impressively marked out.

"We're not in Leinster anymore!"

It was around this time that the scope of the race really started to dawn on me. The International teams flying their colours, the reporters and coaches buzzing around busily, and hordes of spectators enjoying the disco-rhythms in the funpark erected specifically for the event.

For us runners, the final phase is almost the most anxious part. You're standing there, fully geared up, trying to keep warm, huddling amidst equally eager competitors all the while wondering: "Did I place myself correctly in this field? How fast are these guys?"

Standing amidst the Irish runners, Shane, Cormac, and Hugh in front of me, and Aoife and Karen behind me, I had more reason than normal to be nervous. I had committed the ultimate sin: Donned untested equipment. I was wearing my new Mudclaws!

This was a desperate gamble, as these hugely specialised fell-running shoes are not technically designed with races such as Snowdon in mind. They are for the soft boggy races, not the hard tarmac and merciless stone of the Dragon's Back.

My reasoning was equally contrived, well really it was a gut-feeling with reason attached to it as a mere after-thought: The strong studs on the Mudclaws would allow me to climb with minimum slip, meaning a minimal usage of my weak calves.

The Game Plan

Many runners say the only plan they have is to run hard and to run fast, and get to the top and back in one piece. While it's true that few plans survive first contact with the enemy, we all know our own weaknesses and strength, and if we know the route, we have a good idea how to play our hands.

Last year, winner Andie Jones attacked his Welsh rival on the very first climb, I could not afford to follow any such strategy, not even against the runners at my level in mid-field.

Weak ascenders don't burn their candle in both ends by going full-out on the ascent, and as a runner belonging strongly in that category, having suffered spectacular collapses on steep hills throughout the year, I had a simple plan: Survive the ascent, and give hell on the descent as usual.

As it proved, this race would be surprising, frustrating, and altogether unpredictable in all ways. Most of all, however, it changed my perspective, irrevocably, and gave, perhaps, a glimpse of the future.

Tarmac Toils
When the gun went, the front field runners released their stored kinetic energy quick as hares, while the rest of us slowly geared up as we struggled for space in the vast 469 man strong field. Space came all by itself, however, as we left the grassy field of the startline and roared onto the main street of the city, engaging in 500m of road running, and then came reckoning: the infamous tarmac ascent to the foot of the Llanberis Track, known as the "tourist track" for the ease with which it can be walked.

While the ascent grade on this tarmac is outstanding, I did not feel it particularly punishing and from the start, I was surprised by the effortlessness of my climb. I was not roaring up like Andy Reid far away in front, but had found a good steady pace, and acid levels seemed stable and not climbing.

In front of me, all the male Irish internationals had broken away, while I knew Aoife Joyce and Tish McCann were not far behind me.

Llanberis Path
The climb shifted gradient up and down several times as the tarmac turned into rocky pathway. We had hit the Llanberis Path. Aoife Joyce appeared out of nowhere and we struggled side by side for some time. On a particular steep bit, she broke in front for what seemed like a few minutes, before a slightly lower incline prompted me to up the tempo several gears and break away from Aoife and the group I was running with, passing by 6 or 7 runners and joining up with a second group that I would follow almost to the top.

To Try or Not to Try??
The rest was pure entertainment, the gradient kept shifting, we ran past the midway trainstation and below a bridge where the mountain railway runs. In both places water stations and cameras where placed to sate our thirst and any subdued wish for momentary fame we might harbour.

Hikers and spectactors were dotted along this route, and I remember at least three separate people yelling "Go Denmark". It's remarkable how small things like these can briefly give you wings...

Little racing went on at this stage, and next we hit the steepest part of the route a merciless climb up big polished rocks, like an artifical staircase. At this part, most, if not all of us, shifted down to walking speed. I still felt good, however, as the runners around me seemed to be fighting, I was doing a controlled power-walk. Good posture, good rhythm. Heart rate had been going at an average of 182 for almost 5km now, but I was feeling less tortured than on your average Wednesday. What was going on? Was I not trying? Or was this what it felt like to "run smart"?

The Breakaway
As the slope gave away to milder gradients once again, I could not contain my stored energy anymore. Cautiousness had ruled long enough, or perhaps even fear of the not being able to cope with the unknown magnitude of the race, now was the time for action.

Maybe it was seeing Andy Reid, Eoghan McKenna and the other top guns flying down the hills like alpine avalanches that inspired a moment of bravery, or maybe it was my realisation that if I could still shout cheers of encouragement to the leaders, I wasn't trying hard enough.

So next followed the most exhilirating part of the race for me. Runners were walking or slow-jogging around, and with less than 2km to go to the top, I accelerated away with an easy running thread, a few from my group tried to challenge and keep up, by from here to the top, I advanced place by place, and then I saw the Holy Grail: the sadistically erected stony staircase on the top of Snowdon, with the metal trig-point raising from it's centre.

Hi mum!
As we quickly climbed the stairs, a nice lady from Welsh tv must have picked me out as the most approachable looking runners (the less likely to bite her head off for trying to waste our air answering questions perhaps!), and as I jumped off the top, I was faced with the question: "Do you enjoy Wales". I know I should have said something witty to that, but my riposte was some lame "yes, of course" answer. Some oxygen loss to the brain was apparent after all!

The Downer
My plan had executed perfectly. I had climbed quicker and better than expected. Playing the Devil's Advocate, it would even be fair to say that I had climbed it too slowly. My energy stores where not depleted, my mind was clear, all the targets I had hoped for to start a vicious descent.

The key to success does not lie in the broad planning, however, it lies in the small things we do. Coming off I grabbed a big water bottle and foolishly overdrank from it, not only slowing me down at the crucial turn-around point, but triggering a slow lingering stomach cramp that was only to get worse and worse as a continued downwards.

At this stage, the limitations of the Mudclaws also become painfully apparent, they could not deflect any punishment from the underlying stones, and their ultra-narrow frame left me highly exposed to twisting an ankle, as they dug too deep into the small rocks strewed around the railroad line as we came off the top.

I quickly realised that while I was gaining a few positions, I was losing more coming down the technical bit. My poor balance was exposed fully on these bits, and as I finally hit shallower shores, and wanted to pick up speed, the cramps had gotten worse, and disappointingly I could not bite through them, not even as Tish McCann ran side-by-side with me for a few hundred metres before finally rushing away.

The Final Stages
I was lucky to gain a few more positions coming down towards the tarmac as several runners seemed to have died in their tracks. My descent had taken on a minimum of rhythm at this stage, having taken on a shorter faster stride that minimised the cramps, but also the speed.

When I reached the tarmac, I was almost dumbfounded, it had not struck me how steep this thing was when I ran up it! Several runners in front of me where dead in the water in front of me, luckily I relish tarmac, and started a good sprint towards the finish line, passing out some 4 or 5 runners, before the final, still triumphant race through the streets of Llanberis.

This was a carnival, people cheering from all angles, and I couldn't resist the invitation of all the kids along the line to high-five them as I rushed towards the field that marked the finish, the same point where we had all started, fresh and untested, more than one and a half hours earlier.

I looked back, as I always do, and saw a runner in yellow speeding up behind me. Not wanting to open myself up for a late sprint, I gave it as much as I thought necessary and emerged over the line. 01:39:19 the clock said. Not bad, and while I still don't know what to think of it, that moment I felt only relief.

The next few minutes I wandered around, hazily, until I saw familiar faces crossing over, first of which was Aoife Joyce, about three-and-a-half minutes later, then Sarah, Thomas, Niamh, and Dena followed from the Irish contingent, while the male Irish internationals had all been in for a good while, with Shane O'Rourke having arrived last of the team, some nine minutes before I crossed the finish.

My mood quickly improved, however, and I felt ready for a night with a few pints and laughs, sadly the stomach cramp had not forgotten me and slowly, but steadily, it grew worse, until I wasted my night lying in the hotel bed, while the rest of the runners enjoyed a quiet bit of a craic, the hardcore among them apparently holding out until 00:30!!!

If I was feeling bad, though, my thoughts go to the old fella who came down with a broken nose, or the guy who finished the race after breaking his finger going up (a paragon among masochists!).

The Result
I finished 183 out of 469 runners that took the start, satisfactory in a strong field (no sandwich runners here Beronika!!!), of which only four DNFed (did not finish...).

I was 180th at the top in 01:04:18 and should have expected a to finish in the 160s if not for my disastrous 00:35:19 descent. That will be next year's targets:
  • Reach the top in 1 hour
  • Cut descent time down to 33 minutes

This is probably a stretch target, but doable without the stomach cramp, and easy targets are as good as no targets, so no reason to have them.

A few ego-boosting bonuses where to be had, though, as I had beaten 13 elite runners to the top and 12 to the finish line, including the whole male French team and the last placed from the Italian men's team (I'm thinking they didn't send their best????). If only this alone was enough to earn my Danish shirt. On the flipside, good things rarely come easy...

To rub it in I also got 22 of the 34 local runners, and that's going to count for something for a flatland pretender...

Final thoughts...
It's easier to evaluate a race once you get it a little bit at a distance. For the event itself I can only say: I'll be back. This is truly a taste of what international racing is all about, and I, for one, want more. At the same time, I try to remember all those lonely runs in the hills, with no one around, or the small low-key races of the Leinster Championship, and I remind myself not to forget, that these events, not Snowdon, are the heart and soul of mountain running.
That is the runners, and a romantics, perspective however. There is another, that cannot be neglected, that of the competitor. This race shows what it takes to compete with the best, and it shows the gap. Of the 49 elite runners registered, I beat 12, that's no mean feat, but it will count for nothing for the Danish Athletics Association, who will expect much much more than that, if their precedents are anything to go by. In running, though, every victory is personal first and foremost, and the only goal you can focus on, is the next step.

I had a good performance, but it was flawed. At the end of the day 183rd of 469 starters is not bad, especially considering that it should probably have been better. I did not bite through the pain as I should have, and probably ran the ascent to cautiously. These are lessons to be learned, and weaknesses to be addressed.

All of that really doesn't matter, though, much more importantly, I look back and remember those cheers of "go Denmark" and realise that I must earn myself the shirt I am wearing. To do this, my will must defy my natural talents (which are limited), and this is the scary part. I have seen the training program Emma has prepared for August. It's mad, but it's only a start, and even worse, I feel that sheer enthusiasm and love of running is being combined with another growing feeling: a growing fanatical devotion to a singular target.
While its tempting to wonder if this is a natural bi-product of male hunting instinct (in which singular pursuit would be desirable attribute), for me it's a constant warning: How can you combine a balanced life with a fanatical devotion to one thing? It's not something to discuss, really, but it's something to think about; and Snowdon made me do just that, so perhaps it is true what they say: There is much wisdom to be had from Dragons....

Next: Shoe Reviews and "The Trail League starts"